Prescott steps up to scramble Newton's lore

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John Prescott passed a personal parliamentary milestone yesterday, taking part in Prime Minister's Questions for the first time in his 25 years as an MP.

Even so, he has still to ask a question of the Prime Minister. With John Major in the Middle East, Tony Blair followed recent practice and stood down from the twice-weekly bout, enabling Mr Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, to take on Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons.

Entering the chamber just before the exchanges, Mr Prescott was cheered by MPs on both sides. But with Tory MPs intent on making hay with Labour's rewriting of Clause IV, was this the moment for a man whose speaking style is famed for its triumph of passion over grammatical structure?

"Language beyond understanding ... life beyond words" proclaims a billboard on London stations. It could be a collection of Mr Prescott's conference speeches, not a plug for Jodie Foster's new movie, Nell. Yesterday, however, his syntax scrambler was turned off. Instead he asked a crisp question about executive pay, challenging Mr Newton over a report that the committee under Sir Richard Greenbury would recommend "absolutely nothing to curb the greed of the bosses in the privatised utilities".

Mr Newton said Mr Major and all ministers had made clear they attached importance to the work of the CBI-appointed committee. They would want to study its conclusions "and then consider whether it is appropriate to make any legislative change".

Mr Prescott came back: "Whatever Mr Newton may say, is it not the case that the Prime Minister's support for legislation against these pay excesses is a sham?"

On Monday, Michael Heseltine had "once again defended this boardroom greed", he said - a reference to the President of the Board of Trade's contention that paying the directors of British Gas nothing would only save each customer 50p a year.

"Will this Government realise that what people in Britain want is a fundamental shift so that power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many and not the few?"

Recognising the quote - the second half of the sentence was straight from the new constitution - Mr Newton replied: "It sounds to me as if Mr Prescott is going to need to have to undertake another rewrite of Clause IV before the ink on this one is dry." This time, it was Mr Newton's grammar that was in order but his meaning unclear.

L ater, while MPs gave a Second Reading to a Bill paving the way to privatise the commercial activities of the Atomic Energy Authority, a select committee was told what two former prime ministers thought of Question Time.

"I rather feel that the bludgeon has replaced the rapier. And on the whole, the rapier was a rather more elegant weapon and produced results which were just as effective," Lord Callaghan, Labour prime minister from 1976 to 1979, observed. The all-party procedure committee is considering possible reforms to PMQs, but Lord Callaghan, while favouring more substantive questions, clearly did not expect great changes. "Ever since I have sat in the House, for 50 years, there has always been dissatisfaction with question time," the 82-year-old peer said. But he agreed that the 15-minute sessions had "deteriorated seriously" since television was introduced. "I am told that in America it is regarded as a comedy programme and in Holland they view it with some contempt." His own views were not far removed.

When Prime Minister he was "extremely apprehensive" about Question Time. "I had to appear in Parliament unruffled and calm, although like a swan I was paddling like hell underneath."

Lord Callaghan said that in his early years in the Commons there had been "much more courtesy" between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister. Without naming his old adversary, he suggested the element of "personal criticism" had been introduced by Lady Thatcher. "Sorry to sound like an old fogey," he added.

The Baroness will not be taking up the committee's invitation to make a personal appearance. In a letter to the committee, she said her own inclination would be "to leave well alone". She wrote: "I regard it as the PM's duty to meet the wishes of the overwhelming majority of members of the House of Commons, even though different Question Time arrangements may suit the PM better."

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